Slow travel on two wheels: Touring China by bike and taking it all in with Man Zou director Jason Reid

Culture | by Aimee Groom
Posted: December 23rd, 2010 | Updated: July 25th, 2012 | Comments
Cycling across China with Man Zou Jason Reid and four friends cycled 1,000 miles from Beijing to Shanghai... but that's not all. They also documented their slow ride through a fast-changing China, and now the results can be seen in Man Zou: Beijing to Shanghai. The film has been featured on public television in the US and can be streamed online, providing and entertaining and informative look at China from the perspective of a curious team of American cyclists. Here, we talk to Jason, who directed Man Zou, about the experience. Scroll down for a trailer of the film! >>> China Travel: Where did the inspiration for the trip and the film come from? Had you been to China before? Jason Reid: It started off with the idea of going from Bangkok to Beijing on bicycle, but once we realized that would take us over 3 month and would be something like 4,000 miles, we decided to refocus. We also decided that keeping it to one country would be easier and would make for a more focused and pointed documentary. Our goals for the film were very simple: To go to China for the first time and bicycle from Beijing to Shanghai 1,000 miles, without the assistance of support vehicles. We went in with open minds and constantly running cameras, in an attempt to capture a more intimate look at China, the people, and the rapidly changing environment in which they live. I have always felt that bicycle touring is the best way to see a country because of the level of access that you get by traveling 3 feet off the ground, at 10-15 mph. We had a team of four, and it was the first trip to China for all of us. We were also lucky enough to have a Chinese guide, Doven Lu, along with us on the journey. In traveling with him and seeing the country at that level, I think that we were able to see China through a lens that not many people have looked through. CT: How did you go about planning your route and finding your guide, Doven? JR: Sean Wellnitz, one of the members of our team, is a Geographic Information Specialist, and he and I collaborated on making the route. We originally had a friend who was going with us who spoke Mandarin and a month before we left, he dropped out due to work. We found a website about bicycling in China and were able to hire Doven as a guide through that. He fine-tuned our route and made some necessary changes before we left Beijing.

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CT: You covered 1,000 miles in one month. How did you train for the trip and was it enough? JR: In regards to training, we didn't do enough and as you will see in the film...we had rough start to the trip due to that, combined with too much luggage that we were carrying. We didn't have a support vehicle, so we carried everything with us on our bikes. CT: You had to get rid of some of your equipment very early on as it was weighing you down. Was there anything you dumped that you later regretted not taking with you? JR: I think we all (with the exception of Kevin) got rid of too much clothing. We were constantly running out of clean clothes throughout the trip. I sent our set of walkie talkies away too, which we could have used numerous times throughout the trip. I also dumped my electric razor which I regretted when I wanted to shave halfway through the trip. But we were desperate to lose some weight in the mountains. CT: What was the most challenging aspect of the trip physically? JR: Definitely the first week in the mountains in terms of bicycling, but the areas with bad air quality were extremely difficult to get through as well. There were days that it was difficult to get a full breath, so you can imagine the physical strain that puts on your body. CT: And mentally? JR: Definitely riding in traffic in the cities was mentally challenging. You always have to stay very present and focused because there is so much going on around you. Also, it was mentally challenging to be worrying about making the film, while trying to cycling 40-70 miles a day. There are a lot of challenges traveling in China. Cycling alongside the Grand Canal CT: You journey through some very varied landscapes, towns and cities. Can you tell us a bit about the highlights and the lowlights? JR: I really enjoyed the variety of landscapes we experienced. The most beautiful part of the trip was the first week, cycling along the Great Wall out to the coast (east of Beijing). I really liked the variety of cities we experienced as well. We were in large cities such as Beijing, Qingdao, and Shanghai, but we were also in smaller county towns, and very rural areas as well. It gave us a good view of both how quickly China is growing, and the rural areas that are still very underdeveloped in comparison the urban areas. CT: Being on the road constantly for a month and often in very polluted areas, did any of you suffer any serious or longer term health problems? JR: It was definitely difficult to breath at times on the trip and I think it took a little while for our lungs to recover, but none of us had any lasting health problems. We weren't really there all that long (6 weeks), compared to the people who live there. I think the constant exposure to the pollution for an extended period of time could definitely cause longer term health problems those residents in polluted areas. Qingdao ferry CT: If you had to pick one defining moment for the trip, what would it be? JR: It's hard to pick one moment, but I'd say the Beer Festival in Qingdao was the most fun we had. We were able to interact with people there and take a break away from the bikes. It was a really great way to be able to soak up the culture. CT: In the film we see quite clearly how the global demand on products from China are affecting the environment here. Has seeing and experiencing that close up led to any long-term changes in your attitude and lifestyle? JR: The trip definitely impacted all of us. You hear about the problems with the environment, but once you see them with your own kind of brings it all home. We hope that our film will help others see how our needs in America are directly impacting the environment in China. Hopefully it will help more people to realize that this isn't just China's problem, but there are things we can do in the United States to help come up with a solution. CT: Though technically a "vacation" for you all, it was a tough journey. What did you do to recover? JR: Slept for about a week and ate lots of food. We were all exhausted. We all lost a tons of weight (despite eating lots of food along the way). I probably didn't feel all the way back to normal for a month or so. CT: What do you hope people will take away from the film? JR: We always intended for Man Zou to be much more than an adventure film about our travels in China. Instead, we wanted our experience to serve as a vehicle to delve into some of the larger issues that were facing the country following the 2008 Beijing Olympics. In retrospect, I believe we accomplished these goals for the project. In riding through the varied urban and rural areas between Beijing and Shanghai, it opened a window into some of the many contradictions that exist in China today: old vs. new, rich vs. poor, development vs. environment and taking time to see things along the way vs. moving rapidly in modern world. CT: If you could do it all again, what would you do differently? JR: Looking back on what we did, there is little that I would change, other than having more time in China to let all of the things we learned sink in. Although we got to experience so much while we were there, it was still not nearly enough time and we could have easily stayed twice as long. But this is the plight I think we all face in 21st century…not having enough time to take the time to absorb things, to learn about different cultures and people, and to “Walk Slow.” It wasn’t by accident that we titled the film Man Zou. Just like most Americans, I have difficulty walking slow and in making this film, I forced myself to take 6 weeks out of my busy life to experience China and everything it has to offer in the hopes of understanding it just a little more. Although it was a challenge to me to break away and change my mindset, it was ultimately one of the most rewarding experiences of my life. I hope our film can serve to inspire others to do the same.

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